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Literature & Activism - ENG00129M

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  • Department: English and Related Literature
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Juliana Mensah
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: M
  • Academic year of delivery: 2022-23

Module summary

Writers from the African diaspora, non-Western cultures, and previously colonised nations have long grappled with how the political aspects of their writing are engaged with by literary critics and mainstream culture. Salman Rushdie has argued that writers cannot be ‘above politics’ because politics is everywhere. While Martin Amis recently conceded that it is hard to imagine a piece of writing that does not have a political bearing on us. He stated that ‘neutrality is a chimera… It’s a mythical creature’. However, literary scholar, Sanchez-Arce warns that we risk the works of marginalised writers existing in a ‘literary cul-de-sac’ if they are read in only ‘politically inflected terms’. What is the role of writing that advocates for political change within larger contexts of cultural activism, and how should it be read?

Literary texts have been increasingly adopted by cultural and social actors advocating for political reform. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is considered to be a #BlackLivesMatter novel. Beyonce has incorporated the works of writers, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche and Warsan Shire, to create her most overtly political music. While the scarlet and white costume of the handmaids of Margaret Atwood’s novel has been donned by women in public protests from Ireland to Argentina in opposition of gendered oppression. Hale states that empathetic literary training is a ‘pre-condition for positive social change’; and Amnesty International offer reading initiatives aimed at cultivating a human rights ethos in children and young people. 

This module considers cultural and political moments and asks – what is the role of literature in acts of protest? What does it mean for a novel to be adopted by a social justice movement? How is an understanding of human rights developed through reading and empathy? And how do these engagements with activism affect our readings of texts?  In class, we will interrogate the diverse ways in which literature and activism intersect, complement and challenge each other. With an emphasis on writers of the African diaspora and a range of contemporary writers of colour, the module will explore the boundaries of writing, reading and resistance.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Spring Term 2022-23

Module aims

This module aims to investigate: 
1.    the diverse ways writers engage with significant socio-political moments through their writing; 
2.    how cultural and social justice movements employ literature and adopt literary tropes in their activism; 
3.    the potential for reading to foster an empathetic, human rights based ethos in individuals.

Module learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, students should be able to:
1.    Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with theories of political literature and the uses of literary texts in activism.
2.    Demonstrate an advanced understanding of and engagement with analysing cultural production and socio-political events as well as gaining close reading skills.
3.    Evaluate key debates within the relevant critical fields dealing with literature and activism.
4.    Produce independent arguments and ideas which demonstrate an advanced proficiency in critical thinking, research, and writing skills.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay - 4500 words
N/A 100

Special assessment rules


Additional assessment information

You will hand in an essay of approximately 1,500 words in Week 6 of the Autumn term for the Postgraduate Life in Practice module. The main purpose of the essay is to ensure that the department can identify those students who may require additional assistance with academic writing skills.  Material from this essay may be re-visited in either one of the January essays or the dissertation. It is therefore an early chance to work through material that might be used in assessed work. The title topic of the essay, like the title topic of all assessed work for the degree, is left open to the individual student.


Task Length % of module mark
Essay - 4500 words
N/A 100

Module feedback

  • You will receive feedback on all assessed work within the University deadline, and will often receive it more quickly. The purpose of feedback is to inform your future work; it is designed to help you to improve your work, and the Department also offers you help in learning from your feedback. If you do not understand your feedback or want to talk about your ideas further you can discuss it with your module tutor, the MA Convenor or your supervisor, during their Open Office Hours  

Indicative reading

Indicative Reading List:

The Hired Man, Aminatta Forna
Friday Black, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
We Need New Names, Noviolet Bulawayo
The Man Who Ended History, Ken Liu
The Reluctant Fundamentalist, Mohsin Hamid
Wretched Strangers, ed. JT Welsch and Ágnes Lehóczky
Noughts and Crosses, Malorie Blackman
Noughts and Crosses: A Play, Sabrina Mahfouz
The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
The Bone Sparrow, Zana Fraillon
The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
‘The Artist Must Take Sides’, Paul Robeson
Why I Write, George Orwell
Sister Outsider, Audre Lorde
The Origin of Others, Toni Morrison
Identity and Form in Contemporary Literature, ed. by Ana María Sánchez-Arce
Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, Martha Nussbaum 
‘Discourse in the Novel’, Mikhail Bakhtin 
Empathy and the Novel, Susan Keen
‘Fiction as Restriction: Self-binding in New Ethical Theories of the Novel’, Dorothy J. Hale 
‘The Banality of Empathy’, Namwali Serpell
‘Children’s Literature as Tools of and for Activism’ Lindy L. Johnson
Resistance Literature, Barbara Harlow

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.